Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan receives J.W. Graham Medal in Innovation and Computing

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

On Saturday, October 1, 2022, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan (MSc ’61, PhD ’65) received an honorary J.W. Graham Medal in Innovation and Computing at the Wes Graham Symposium.

The award recognizes Professor Cowan’s “extensive academic career, pioneering research in mathematics and computer science, entrepreneurial spirit, and devotion to mentorship and knowledge sharing.”

“I feel truly overwhelmed,” said Professor Cowan about the honour. “It has been an amazing 62-year journey through the halls of the University of Waterloo and related organizations. I have lived through vacuum tube computers, $8 million transistor computers to ones you can carry in your pocket that cost a few hundred dollars and make the $8 million computer look small in speed and capacity.”

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan giving an acceptance speech at the 2022 Wes Graham Symposium

After starting his career in the 1960s, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Cowan began working on computers in a significant way and saw both the University of Waterloo campus and his field grow. Appointed as Founding Chair of the computer science department at a young age, he faced the challenge of finding the people to work in a field that was still in its youth.

The J.W. Graham Medal in Innovation and Computing was established in 1994 to recognize the leadership and many innovative contributions made to the University of Waterloo and to the Canadian computer industry by J. Wesley (Wes) Graham during his career as a professor and university administrator.

“There truly is no one who emulates the qualities of Wes Graham more than Don Cowan,” said Ian McPhee, co-founder of WATCOM, the 1995 recipient of the J.W. Graham Medal and member of the Graham Medal selection committee.

Professor Cowan obtained his master’s and doctoral degrees in Applied Mathematics from the University of Waterloo. He began his teaching career in the early 1960s and was the founding chair of the computer science department. Under his leadership, the department grew from three to thirty-five members in five years and soon ranked as one of the best in the world.

Professor Cowan helped Wes Graham acquire an IBM 360 Model 75 mainframe, Canada’s most powerful computer at the time, and the same model that NASA used to do the calculations needed to send people to the moon.

“Just think about this little university in Southwestern Ontario going after a machine that size — what gall!” Professor Cowan enthused in his acceptance speech.

photo of Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan addressing audience

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Cowan speaks to the audience at the Wes Graham Symposium reception

Professor Cowan was a part of the team that developed and distributed several software systems including WATFOR, WATFIV, WATBOL, WIDJET, WATERLOO Pascal, APL, BASIC, COBOL, and FORTRAN, the local area networks Waterloo JANET and MacJANET, and many other software systems for education.

Professor Cowan ran computer science days to interest high school students in computers and programming and supervised more than 120 graduate students during his career. In 1999, he received the designation of Distinguished Professor Emeritus in recognition of his academic accomplishments. He is also a successful entrepreneur: he was a member of various University of Waterloo spinoff companies like WATCOM and LivePage.

Retirement has not slowed down Professor Cowan’s interest in emerging technologies. He keeps current through his directorships of various start-ups, non-profits and corporations. He currently sits as Chair of the Board of Driftscape, Volunteer Attract and Civic Atlas.

The symposium also featured talks by Edith Law, Associate Professor in the Cheriton School of Computer Science, and Pedro Elkind Velmovitsky, PhD student in the School of Public Health and Health Systems. Professor spoke about the challenges of crowdsourcing and how to design systems that coordinate human and machine intelligence to tackle difficult problems, such as medical annotation.

Pedro Velmovitsky discussed several projects he is working on at Waterloo’s Ubiquitous Health Technology Lab that use smart technologies to improve mental health, promote healthy aging, conduct environmental research and detect misinformation. He also explained how data from these projects can be connected in a unified and secure health data ecosystem.

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